The Tirailleurs Senegalais were West African Colonial Army troops who fought for the French during World War I, World War II, and in numerous conquest, police, and colonial counterinsurgency operations. Despite the name, the Tirailleurs Senegalais were composed of soldiers recruited and conscripted from throughout French West Africa and not just from Senegal. However, recruitment and casualty burdens for Senegalese soldiers often numbered among the highest of the Tirailleurs Senegalais.
The Tirailleurs Senegalais were created as the first permanent units of black African soldiers under French rule in 1857. From 1857 to 1905 the Tirailleurs Senegalais was primarily a mercenary force composed of slaves and Africans from low social ranks although a small group of well-born Africans served as intermediaries. The rachat (repurchase) system of slave purchase was employed by the French in obtaining soldiers, and although the practice officially ended in 1882, coercive tactics similar to slave purchasing still continued.
The creation of the West African Federation in 1905 initiated the transition from military to civilian rule, but increasing numbers of African troops were needed in this period for policing, fighting resistance forces, and as garrison troops. The Tirailleurs Senegalais also participated in the conquest of Morocco in the early 1900s. In 1912 a new partial conscription law was passed.
With the start of World War I, many Tirailleurs Senegalais soldiers were brought to the front in France and served in several important battles, like Vimy Ridge and Somme. They were also for a time amalgamated with black American soldiers in the trenches. French West African troops serving in World War I comprised about 170,891 men, and approximately 30,000 of them were killed. In Senegal alone more than 1/3 of all males of military age were mobilized.
Following World War I, the Conscription Law of 1919 in French West Africa called for universal male conscription in peacetime as well as wartime. Hundreds of thousands served in the Tirailleurs Senegalais in colonial wars in this time period and in reserves and labor brigades.
During World War II France once again used the Tirailleurs Senegalais troops, this time in even greater numbers. In 1940, African troops comprised roughly 9% of the French army. The French recruited more than 200,000 black Africans during the war. Approximately 25,000 were killed in battle. Many were also interned in German labor camps and thousands of black African Prisoners of War (POWs) were murdered by the Wehrmacht in 1940. In contrast to World War I, African troops were integrated into French military units. But when victory was close for the Free French forces de Gaulle ordered a “whitening” of the troops and replaced 20,000 Africans at the front with white Frenchmen.
After French liberation, African servicemen were grouped in French centers to await the journey back home. However, they faced discriminatory treatment, and shortages of food, shelter, and other resources. In December of 1944 a protest at a camp in Thiaroye in Senegal involving the first group of ex-POWS to be sent back to West Africa resulted in 35 Africans killed, hundreds wounded, and many sentenced to jail terms. This protest, sometimes known as the “Thiaroye Massacre,” stemmed from French mistreatment and failure to provide back pay.
Following World War II, a series of veterans organizations were formed that demanded equal rights. Many played important roles in Senegalese nationalist movements. The Tirailleurs Senegalais controversially participated in the French counterinsurgency war in Algeria in the 1950s, although some troops protested the involvement. Léopold Sédar Senghor, who in 1960 became the first President of independent Senegal, had served in the Tirailleurs Senegalais and was a POW during WWII.